Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #92: GHS, Alma Mater

“The first time I put Mary Carol out at the high school after the 1970 court orders were implemented and saw the mixed crowd on the sidewalks, I cried all the way home, knowing that never again would our schools be the same as we had known them and feeling, too, that the black kids would never know the pride they had had in their own school.

“Mary Carol did not want to leave GHS and we felt that she would be better off graduating there, so after finishing her sophomore year she decided to finish school in the summer following her junior year. In the spring [1971] she was awarded a full-tuition scholarship at Mississippi College and made her plans to enter school there in 1971. She had mixed feelings about giving up her senior year and later has regretted that she missed that.

“I went to a pep rally at Greenwood High School in the fall of 1970. The students who had stayed at GHS were doing their best to put on a good show while the black students sat in a group in the stands looking lost. Some of the girls who had been cheerleaders the previous year but who were now at Pillow came back for the pep rally. They looked sad, and I heard one say, ‘I wish I were back.’ It was hard to say which ones I was the sorriest for because it was evident no one was really very happy.”

Ed. note: Once again, this slips into the realm of personal experience. I distinctly remember that day that Sara dropped me off ( as I never had a car in high school, much to my sorrow) and I headed for the breezeway where everyone hung out until the first bell rang. There were little knots of black students scattered about, very quiet and looking very, very worried. There were no incidents and no words even passed, so far as I was aware. As we entered the main building, there was sawdust and concrete dust in the air where walls had been knocked down over the previous days, and I think that’s when it really hit me that nothing would ever again be the same. My most vivid memory, maybe not that day but within the first week of full desegregation, is of sitting in my homeroom Biology class, listening to the clang of lockers up and down Wing B as students cleaned out their books in anticipation of leaving for Pillow. Each locker slamming was like a kick to the gut, worsened by the sound of laughter, as if those leaving were headed off on some sort of permanent lark. As I left class that day, I ran into a childhood friend who had never had much to do with me, even though we were neighbors. She stopped me in the hallway, glared at me and demanded, “I guess you’re leaving, too?” “Hell, no,” I answered, and I meant that with the intensity that only a sixteen-year-old can muster. As the day went on, it became obvious who was bailing out and who was going to hang in there, and those of us left quickly and firmly decided that we weren’t going to let GHS as we knew it vanish. We grew closer, leaped a lot of unnecessary hurdles and made some endearing friendships with the black kids, who had truly gotten a raw deal. All in all, it wasn’t a bad two years, but after watching more than one teacher walk out on us in the middle of class, headed for the security of Pillow Academy, I decided the wisest course would be to take that generous offer  from MC and move on after my junior year. Forty years later, I still regret that that was necessary. And I am grateful that my own children were never pawns in the games that the courts played with our lives and our education in those early years of the ’70s.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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6 Responses to Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #92: GHS, Alma Mater

  1. Nancy Webb Phillips says:

    Those were sad days, indeed! I was a member of the GHS Band. That organization helped me have a pretty good high school experience . Some band members left for Pillow because their parents made them, but most of us stayed. We were a pretty tight-knit group. All in all, I got along with everyone. It prepared me for my future career for sure!

    • sec040121 says:

      If there was a positive side to that whole experience, it was that many people who would never have been leaders or involved in a lot of activities got to participate in a bigger way. I do recall that our class pulled together and lost some of the prickliness and pettiness that seemed to be generated by the group that went off to Pillow. Leaving after our junior year was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, and I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do.

  2. Jenny adams says:

    great post. really moving

    • sec040121 says:

      Thanks, Jenny. Your grandmother told me that she prayed every night for years that Cathy and I would “make it out” before the bottom fell out of the Greenwood schools. Cathy did slip through but I got caught with 2 1/2 years left. In retrospect, those years were a valuable learning experience in many ways, but I was left with a lot of bitterness for the judicial system which used all of us as pawns for their ideas of social justice. Once I had children of my own, I gained a much greater appreciation for the wrenching decisions that parents had to make in those times.

  3. Elizabeth Pollard Moore says:

    I found your blog by accident…and was very moved by your lovely tribute to your mother and father. I graduated from GHS in 1959 and enjoyed the same high school experiences your mother did. I remember her with her camera and felt she was our special connection with “The Commercial Appeal”. I knew many of the wonderful people you and she mentioned. Having lived in Virginia and Ohio for over 45 years, I experienced the civil rights trauma second- hand through my parents, County Judge Charles Pollard and Elizabeth Pollard. And I am still saddened to think of how Greenwood has changed through the years. Thank you for sharing your mother’s writings.
    Elizabeth “Babbo” Pollard Moore

    • sec040121 says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words; it’s always good to hear from another Greenwood voice, especially someone who remembers my mother. She truly loved sharing this town through the Commercial Appeal and I’m just grateful that she left all of this material from her life and career. I hope you’ll enjoy reading through the postings and please do share any memories of your own days in Greenwood.

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